Mountain Area Information Network

8 April 2008

Asheville, N.C. endorses
new Wi-Fi business model

ASHEVILLE, N.C. -- A proposal to make Asheville a "Wi-Fi City" -- via city-wide, wireless Internet access -- won unanimous endorsement March 25 from the Asheville City Council.

The plan, put forth by the nonprofit Mountain Area Information Network (MAIN), would provide secure wireless coverage -- including mobile access -- throughout the city.

"I'm pleased that the City of Asheville has officially endorsed MAIN's 'Wi-Fi City' proposal" said Asheville Mayor Terry Bellamy. "This effort will not only help bridge the Digital Divide in our community. It also signals to the nation that Asheville has a 21st-century vision for an inclusive and sustainable Digital Economy."

The network buildout will have a special focus on underserved neighborhoods, said Wally Bowen, MAIN's executive director.

MAIN's "Wi-Fi City" network employs a low-power wireless technology called "mesh" that's well-suited for residential neighborhoods, Bowen said. MAIN's mesh network is already operating in parts of nine Asheville neighborhoods.

Most free Wi-Fi "hot spots" are not secure and can't be used for confidential business, legal, and medical data, Bowen said. By contrast, MAIN's wireless service is secure and monitored around-the-clock to ensure commercial-grade service.

Local agencies and businesses offering in-home services have cited a growing need for secure and mobile broadband access.

Councilman Bill Russell agreed that small business-owners would benefit from secure, mobile Internet access. "I think it's fantastic. I see nothing but good can come from it," he said.

Lois Clement, technology director for the Asheville City Schools, said MAIN's proposal coincides with the school system's push for expanded access to information technology.

She called the wireless network "a huge opportunity that we re very excited about." She said 21st-century technology "extends learning beyond the school walls, and we need community support like this to make it happen. We can't do it alone."

Terry O'Keefe, a local technology consultant, cited the advantages of a locally accountable nonprofit network. "This network is an asset that belongs to this community in a way that no other technology infrastructure can be said to belong," O'Keefe said.

He predicted that MAIN's wireless infrastructure will support future applications "that we can't even imagine today."

Bowen noted that state regulatory changes in 2006 eliminated rules for upgrading cable and telephone networks in low-wealth neighborhoods, portending a worsening Digital Divide in North Carolina.

"More of our residents enjoy the benefits of high-speed Internet access, but a broadband Digital Divide persists in our low-wealth neighborhoods," said Bowen, citing data from a 2007 Pew Internet and American Life survey.

While 47 percent of adult Americans reported broadband Internet access at home in 2007, the Pew survey found that only 30 percent of Americans with incomes under $30,000 had broadband access at home. Only 15 percent of Americans over 65 reported broadband at home.

"This data clearly shows that our most vulnerable citizens -- our lower-income young and old -- don't have access to the health, education and economic benefits of broadband Internet," Bowen said. Many experts believed that municipal wireless networks would help bridge the broadband Digital Divide and create a "third pipe" alternative to the cable and telephone companies control of the Internet.

Bowen predicted that MAIN's nonprofit model will be seen as an attractive alternative to muncipally-owned networks, which have had mixed success.

Operating in the tradition of rural telephone and electric cooperatives, nonprofit wireless networks are less vulnerable to shifting political winds and inadequate local government staffing, he said.

He added that Asheville is also unique in being home to two complementary nonprofit networks: ERC Broadband, a fiber-based network serving local industry and government agencies; and MAIN, which has provided affordable "last mile" access to homes and businesses in western North Carolina since 1996.

Access to nonprofit fiber infrastructure ensures that MAIN's "Wi-Fi City" network will always have plentiful and affordable bandwidth for state-of-the-art services, Bowen said. END

About MAIN:

The nonprofit Mountain Area Information Network was originally funded in 1996 by a U.S. Department of Commerce grant to provide dial-up Internet access in 12 mountain counties, at a time when most rural residents had to call long-distance to get online. In 1997, MAIN and its original fiscal agent, Land of Sky Regional Council, received the Innovation Award from the National Association of Development Organizations (NADO) in Washington, D.C.

MAIN also provided the first public Internet access in libraries and community centers across the mountain region. MAIN continues to provide free or reduced-fee access to more than 400 citizens with disabilities via partnerships with area independent-living agencies.

In 2002, MAIN was awarded a grant from the N.C. Rural Internet Access Authority to provide broadband wireless in Madison, Yancey and Mitchell counties. MAIN extended its service to Asheville and Buncombe County in 2005. For more information, visit: www.main.nc.us. END